Remembering Joan Aiken – and her Haunted House.

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The Hermitage, Petworth ~ Joan Aiken’s last home

My mother Joan Aiken died in the month of January, in fact her favourite month, because she said it was the most hopeful time of all, with the whole new year lying ahead. Like her own mother, she had firm opinions and often voiced them, although when I am listening for that familiar voice I sometimes make surprising discoveries. It being January I was listening out, and in this case what appeared was a rough version of poem I had never seen before, that I found in an old notebook, and although it was clearly written many years earlier when she was young, it seems to describe the last house she came to live in..The Hermitage.

This little portrait of Joan’s last house was painted by the architect friend who helped her bring it back to life, when she and her painter husband discovered it lying ruined and abandoned on the edge of the little town of Petworth in Sussex where they lived.  The house then went on to play a fairly haunting part in several of her historical novels about the Paget family, set in and around her home town of Petworth. It had plenty of history, lying between two churchyards, it was also supposed to have a secret tunnel leading from its garden gazebo up to the local estate of  Petworth House.

The Hermitage was commonly believed to be haunted; Joan had read a story about it in the local paper, when a couple walking their dog on the path below the house, reported seeing a ghostly monk, and the newspaper took up the story with relish…diving back into earlier stories.

The previous inhabitant, by then an old lady, had found sharing the house with an over familiar apparition  too unsettling when she was left alone after the death of her husband, and so in order to live with it, she herself became something of a local legend:

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 Joan Aiken was sad never to have seen the ghost herself, although she had bought the house partly because of its strange story – indeed it could almost have been one of her own.  She had always been completely unafraid of mystery, and let her imagination have full play. A friend recalled Joan saying she liked to eat cheese for supper in the hope of having a good nightmare to provide future story material –  as readers of her ghost stories will know she certainly did have a rich and wicked imagination…

I like to think that something of her own history now haunts the house, perhaps a friendly presence that belies its quiet exterior, and that was why this found poem seemed so apt. Here is a fragment of the unfinished poem, written in a school notebook many years earlier:

  “Swan among trees, the yew in its dark plumage

Raises its points against the glittering sky

Dropping a pool of shadow across the house

Shuttered and soulless since you are away.

Perhaps behind your shuttered features also

There lives a friend? This front gives rise to doubt

No inmate waves a hand at the blank windows

No footprints tell of passage in or out.”

Joan Aiken was often asked where she got her ideas.  Often, she would say, they came simply from the twists and turns of life, or from newspaper articles, which she clipped out and kept in a notebook, because, as she said, you never knew when they would find a home in a story; or when a story would make its home in a house.

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Read more about Joan Aiken’s strange stories here

Read more about Joan Aiken’s three Paget Family novels,

set in her own house and the town of Petworth

The Smile of the Stranger, The Girl from Paris, and The Weeping Ash

(also known as The Young Lady from Paris and The Lightning Tree)

All now out as EBooks

All Paget novels

Painting of The Hermitage by Vernon Gibberd

Happy Birthday Joan Aiken: 4 Sept. 1924

JA birth page

“Some of you may know a town called Rye. In that town is a narrow cobbled street…Mermaid Street, and an old haunted house built by an astrologer.”

So begins Joan Aiken’s A Jar of Cobblestones, a story about the mermaid of Rye (and the astrologer) from the new Virago collection “The Gift Giving” which includes many of her favourites, especially those she set in well loved places.

She wrote of her pleasure in re-reading these stories:

” I like to revisit them from time to time…like going back to stay in a house or piece of country that one has known since childhood…”

And one house in particular has appeared in many of her works – Jeake’s House, named after the astrologer Samuel Jeake who built it, and who invented a flying machine, and is said to have tried it out, off the high walls of the town of Rye, possibly carrying a rather unusual passenger…

“The machine crashed but he escaped.  Whether there was a mermaid on board I can’t say, but he did live in the house halfway down Mermaid Street. 

I know because I was born in it.”

gift giving

Now out from Virago Modern Classics

Illustrated by Peter Bailey

…and if you ever visit Rye and would like to stay in Jeake’s House yourself you can, but don’t worry about ghosts –

these days it is a very comfortable hotel!

 

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“The Apple of Trouble” a Joan Aiken Armitage Family story

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 Read a taster of one of Joan Aiken’s fantastic stories…Mark and Harriet are being looked after at home by their irascible Great Uncle Gavin who has bought Mark an expensive new bike and insisted he go out and get some exercise.

On the road he meets an odd character:

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….Mark is persuaded to take the golden apple in an exchange with the little man who makes off at top speed on the brand new bicycle – unfortunately Great-Uncle Gavin  nearly bursts a blood vessel when he hears… “Did what? Merciful providence – an apple?…Where is it?”

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       How are Mark and Harriet going to get rid of these Un-Friendly ladies before they avenge themselves on Great-uncle Gavin? Just one of the many adventures that befall Joan Aiken’s Armitage Family, usually on a Monday, but sometimes on other days too.. wonderfully illustrated by Peter Bailey

7 Page 175

Wonder how they do?

This and all the stories about the extraordinary Armitage family are in

The Serial Garden

Now published by Virago Modern Classics

Click to visit the website and see this and the US edition

 

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Want to play an Aiken guessing game?

Want to play an Aiken guessing game?

Q:Which story is this? …and there are over three hundred to choose from…….!

Of course it helps if you are in Japan where this beautiful new edition of A Touch of Chill has just come out.
A: The Rented Swan – who is of course really an enchanted ornithologist acting as a muse to the musician renting her apartment…..

The most recent new collection of Joan Aiken stories was The Monkey’s Wedding published by Small Beer Press, which included previously unpublished and uncollected stories.

Read more about this collection at The Wonderful World of Joan Aiken http://www.joanaiken.com/pages/monkeys_wedding.html

I am currently reading through her dozens of collections of fantasy stories in order to put together a new collection – do let me know if you have all time favourites?